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Air Force Expands Cancer Study for Missile Workers Amid PCB Concerns

(Photo: U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jackson Ligon, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron technician)

(Photo: U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jackson Ligon, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron technician)

Washington, D.C. – December 5, 2023

As worries about the high cancer rates among service members who worked with nuclear missiles grew, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would be expanding its study to look into possible links between missile duty and higher cancer rates. After an initial look that showed the need for a more thorough investigation, the choice to look into the situation further was made.

The first study was started because many accounts said that rocket launch officers were sick. It is part of a larger review that started earlier this year. The goal is to find out if the missileers, who are in charge of the country’s silo-launched nuclear weapons, were exposed to harmful substances. Concerns were raised by current or past missile launch officers who said they had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Air Force hasn’t said how many cancer cases they have seen yet, but they have said that more research is needed based on early findings. At three nuclear missile bases—Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming—the air, water, earth, and surfaces are being tested as part of the full study.

The first results show that none of the tests from sites in Montana or Wyoming had amounts of contamination in the air, water, or land that were harmful. Concerns were raised, though, when it was found that four places in the underground launch control pods where missileers worked had too high of amounts of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which the Environmental Protection Agency says could cause cancer.

The study wants to look at everyone who works with missiles, not just missile designers. This includes people who help with the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) task. Even though there are safety steps in place now, the study makes you think about possible exposure in the past, since a lot of the equipment is from the 1960s.

“We can’t go back and fully quantify what was there in the 1990s or 2000s, or even the 1950s and 1960s,” said Col. Tory Woodard, head of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. “But we can use this data to help us figure out what those risks might have been.”

The Air Force is looking at more medical records to get more complete information. They want to include records from people who worked with military nuclear weapons as early as 1976. The study wants to find out about everyone who worked in the nuclear group from 1976 to 2010.

In answer to these worries, the Air Force is taking a much more proactive approach than in earlier reviews, looking into possible health risks related to missile duty. More attention was paid to the issue after current and past missile launch officers or their living family members went public with information about their own cancer. Notably, the Torchlight Initiative, which was started by families who had been impacted, continues to push for knowledge and proper recording of exposure in the missile community.

As the Air Force says, “no stone unturned.” This change is part of a larger effort by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to address worries about toxic exposure in military jobs.


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